The Illusionist (Neil Burger, 2006)
My biggest gripe with Christopher Nolan's The Prestige (2006) was that the film feels so mechanical, so content in pursuing that end-of-the-film twist, that it lost all notion of what magic is. Neil Burger's The Illusionist, last year's other film about magic, also has a twist in the end. But because the film looks so tastefully sumptuous and feels so effortlessly hypnotic, there's no sense at all that the film exists merely for that plot twist. In fact, the twist in the end felt more like a bonus (at least to some, I felt that it was a bit of a letdown) to Neil Burger's spectacle.
Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, The Illusionist pits master magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) against crown prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Eisenheim has been gaining fame after his astounding illusion shows, threatening Leopold's grasp at power. In the center of their quasi-political rivalry is duchess Sophie (Jessica Biel), bethroted to Leopold but secretly in love with her childhood sweetheart Eisenheim. Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), chief of police of Vienna, while entranced by Eisenheim's tricks is also trapped in serving the crown prince.
The film is actually shot in Prague (where most period pieces set in Europe are shot). However, under the masterful visual command of Dick Pope (who shot most of Mike Leigh's films, probably also responsible for his film's achingly somber mood), Prague is tranformed into an atmospheric Vienna, soft in texture and golden in hue. Vienna feels almost unnatural; which helps a lot especially since some of Eisenheim's tricks require CGI. Instead of looking absolutely fake, the computer generated illusions add to the fanciful atmosphere. As Burger plods through his adapted expansion of Steven Millhauser's short story, it's almost impossible to look away. Composer Philip Glass collaborates with Burger and Pope to sum up a complete mesmerizing package.
The Illusionist is also very well acted. Norton contains an illusion of mystery throughout the feature. Instead of being simply brooding (as in the case of Christian Bale in Nolan's film), Norton inhabits stoic and unexpectedly romantic. The biggest surprise in the film is Giamatti, who is usually typecasted as the neurotic friend or the average man. Here, he is convincingly commanding and manages to shift likeability whenever possible. His difficult moral dilemma of serving a rebellious prince and catching the culprit is evoked by Giamatti's large eyes and his impressively controlled mannerisms. It is also Giamatti who I thought made the conclusive reveal more palatable; he juggles the enchantment of being fooled, the amusement of witnessing probably the greatest illusion, and the guilt of being in the center of a non-intrigue. I'm quite amazed by Giamatti's performance's depth.
I still believe that more people will opt for The Prestige than this. In this cinematic age wherein cinematographic artistry is replaced by narrative ingenuity, films like The Illusionist is a true letdown. It's the type of film that dares to wade through the plot while keeping the illusionist magic of cinema healthy in its presentation. It is relaxed, expressive and fashionable while The Prestige was always in a constant hurry.